Reflecting on Stafford Style

A few months ago – if you weren't aware – the UK's Jasmine label added to its catalogue a third Jo Stafford entry, "Reflections: The Ultimate Collection." Well, naturally, I had to buy – in scanning the track listing, I'd spotted several previously unreleased records (and you know that one is all it takes, for me). Well, the 4-disc set turned out to be something of a hodge podge
– even for an artist billed as "America's Most Versatile Singing Star": some of the later things from Jo's first Capitol stint ('43-'50), including duets with Gordon MacRae and Johnny Mercer; the Columbia hits, Great American Songbook and Americana interpretations and Mitch Miller-initiated dross; several religious hymns; the entire "A Portrait of New Orleans" EP, with Frankie Laine's two sans-Stafford sides as well as the duets and the solo Jo's.

Oddest – and, for me, most revelatory, perhaps – of all among these 100+ tracks, though, are the records from late in Jo's Columbia tenure, a time when Rock & Roll had supplanted big band, swing and jazz as pop music. Dopey sing-along cycle aside, A & R man Mitch Miller was a trend follower – when sparser, guitar-prominent accompaniment became the fashion, he wanted even the by then middle-aged orchestra alumni signed to the label to don the musical clothes of the day and sell records to the kids. Jo herself admitted that to some extent she was willing to go along with the program in trade-off for being one of a very few artists who didn't have to pay for their own recording sessions. Such songs, represented in Jasmine's "Ultimate," as "Hibiscus," "I'll Buy It," "What's Botherin' You Baby," and (the egregious) "Underneath the Overpass" do not bear the Kern or Gershwin pedigree and the Rock & Roll-tinged rhythms and instrumentation applied to them seem unlikely Stafford surroundings – but Jo triumphs. An amazing feat when you consider the intrinsic worth of the material.

Today, Jo's birthday, as I've listened, I've thought about the quality that preceded her celebrated versatility – adaptability: without the capacity first to gain an understanding of the environment and then to adjust and conform to and fit it, while retaining your identity, you can't acquire versatility. In those garish late '50's years, Jo didn't turn into a pony-tailed Teen Queen chanteusie – no. But she again displayed the elasticity of
her contemporary outlook, so essential to her musical style.